Wolf in White Van

The book cover has the title in turquoise blue against a white background, the letters forming a labyrinthine maze.

By Ben H.

When I was a child, my mind wandered a lot, and most often it would wander to the dark places, as though drawn there by instinct 

Sean Phillips

I am a huge fan of John Darnielle, the author of Wolf in White Van. He records music as The Mountain Goats and released two stellar albums in 2020. New albums aside, the album that matches best with Wolf in White Van is 2012’s Transcendental Youth; more on that later. 

More pertinent to this review, John Darnielle is an accomplished novelist and a 2020 judge for the National Book Awards. His 2014 novel Wolf in White Van, also available from HCLS as an eAudiobook from Libby/OverDrive, is what this review is really all about. 

Wolf in White Van is kind of a tragic novel filled with darkness, piercing insights, humor, and a lot of unanswered or unanswerable questions. Is Sean Phillips, the protagonist of the book, the titular wolf? That is the question that I kept asking myself after I finished reading it.  

Present-day Sean lives alone. A traumatic event in his past left him disfigured and dependent on daily visits from a nurse. He is self-employed as the creator and manager of a pen and paper role-playing game called Trace Italian. Young Sean hatched the idea for a role-playing survival game that participants play through the mail during his long stay in the hospital recovering from the event.

Players pay Sean to explore his vision of a post-apocalyptic future where they chase the rumor of a safe haven called Trace Italian. Monthly or weekly they send him their moves and he tells them what happens next and gives them options for their next move. Two of Sean’s most dedicated players recently suffered a tragic accident because of decisions they made inspired by his game, and he faces the real-life consequences of their actions.

Young Sean is an enigma. Friends and family demand logic, reason, motivation, and rational explanations for his eccentric behavior, but he can’t provide his family with the answers they seek. The reader follows young Sean through episodes that inexorably move him toward the trauma that will change his life.

The novel has a fuzzy quality. The jumps from the present to episodes in the past keep the reader off-balance. The alternate reality of Sean’s role-playing game adds to the uneasy feeling of the novel. Some chapters jump into Trace Italian and describe how players navigate the harsh realities of Sean’s created world. I don’t want to give away the twists and turns, so I’ll stop.

The novel is the story of Sean, Sean’s family and friends, and the people playing Sean’s game. It is also filled with nostalgia. John Darnielle is a collector. He collects memories and feelings. That feeling you got when you watched static on the TV late at night in a kind of trance? John Darnielle remembers it and writes about it. That weird C-movie you watched on Saturday afternoon when you were a kid and no one else remembers ever existing? He remembers it. In fact, he has a VHS copy around here somewhere. 

I don’t think Sean is a wolf in a white van. I mentioned earlier that Transcendental Youth might be the best album to pair with this book, and I think that is because of a certain thematic cohesion. On the first track, a track named after the late Amy Winehouse, John Darnielle sings:

Let people call you crazy for the choices that you make 
Climb limits past the limits, jump in front of trains all day
And stay alive
Just stay alive

Wolf in White Van is full of people making choices that are A: hard to understand for everyone else, and B: dangerous or harmful. Darnielle doesn’t celebrate harmful choices, but he does explore life around those choices. Darnielle writes episodes of levity, kitsch, and nostalgia, but overall this is a book filled with more questions than answers and leaves the reader with the feeling that there might not be answers to some questions.

Ben Hamilton works at Project Literacy, Howard County Library’s adult basic education initiative, based at HCLS Central Branch. He loves reading, writing, walking, and talking (all the basics).

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